Harry Potter and the illogic of the book business

28 Jun

I can’t help but read stories about authors and their self-publishing efforts with great relish. The bigger the better. That’s why, when I saw the news over the weekend about Harry Potter writer J.K Rowling going the self-publishing route, all I could think was, “You go girl!”

When a big-name writer such as Rowling – who, let’s face it, is the biggest there is – goes solo and decides to sell her own ebooks independent of any publisher, that contributes to two things. First, it continues to take the stigma off self-publishing and secondly, it sends further much-needed shockwaves through the already rollicking book business.

On the first point, it’s true that Rowling isn’t exactly taking a huge chance. Her Harry Potter books are already established commodities and she will doubtlessly do very well selling her own books. People know who she is and will seek her out. Nevertheless, her move is a huge step toward quashing whatever negative connotation might still be associated with self-publishing. If the biggest author in the world isn’t too vain to publish her own books, then no one else can be, right?

The second point is considerably more important, though. How Rowling is choosing to sell her ebooks is almost as important as the fact that she is doing so in the first place. Rather than going with an established middle man ebook retailer, such as Amazon or Apple, Rowling is choosing to sell her goods via her own website. That means she’ll be keeping 100% of the proceeds, rather than giving up 30% to the middle man.

That’s pretty amazing because if other big names follow suit, the whole book-selling dichotomy will change dramatically. Amazon, Apple, Kobo and the like will have to work at attracting and keeping such big names. In other words, they’ll have to actually do something to earn their 30%, other than just sitting there. Whether that’s some sort of promotional agreement or whether the 30% gets dramatically cut to say 5%, ebook retailers are going to have to add some kind of value to what they do.

That brings us to traditional publishers. Exactly what do they do to earn their 90% cut? They seem to be left holding the short end of the stick – and deservedly so.

Speaking from my limited experience, the book business is more illogical and messed up than the music industry ever was, and we all know what happened to them. My own Canadian publisher, Penguin, has been fighting with Amazon over ebook pricing and generally trying to resist the digital revolution completely. In the meantime, Penguin authors are suffering from a healthy dose of illogic, like grossly overpriced ebooks. There is no sane reason why an ebook should cost more than a hardcover, but lo and behold, that’s the case with my Sex, Bombs and Burgers.

What’s the result of this? It’s non-existent ebook sales. I wouldn’t pay $22 for the best ebook in the world – and obviously no one else will either, if my sales reports are anything to go by (and yes, although Sex, Bombs and Burgers is a veritable thrill ride, it probably isn’t the best ebook in the world in anyone’s mind besides my own).

The most poignant part of the Wired story is about how Rowling’s move may be a “kick up the arse” to the publishing industry:

Publishers need to radically rethink their remuneration structures in order to ensure that their cash cows don’t all follow Rowling’s suit. To this day, publishing remains a B2B business – publishers sell to retailers and not readers.

To that, I’d add that publishers have a new set of customers – their authors – and they need to start making them happy. Otherwise, writers might start doing similarly illogical things, like directing potential readers to sites like these.


Posted by on June 28, 2011 in amazon, apple, ebooks


5 responses to “Harry Potter and the illogic of the book business

  1. Daniel Friesen

    June 28, 2011 at 1:02 am

    lol, an author that actually openly links to a 3rd party torrent of their book to make a point, rather than take the fettered route and just mention the existence of pirated copies without pointing to them.
    If I were one who could actually sit down and actually read a book, I’d buy a copy just on that.

    On Rowling and self-publishing, and how smaller self-publishers have obscurity pushing them towards the middle men; Something definitely useful there would be if every self-publisher selling on their website made sure to mark up the info about their book with some standard that allowed it to be indexed. Create them if needed, especially for book pricing, but I believe there are some standards for describing information about a book.
    If every self-publisher stuck to a standard way of describing their books on their website, and there was some way to easily index them, it would be possible for 3rd parties to pop up with sites that index the info on self-published books and provide a amazon/storefront style website allowing consumers to find books.

    On the subject of Penguin, I have a question. Right now, what ‘is’ it that ties you to Penguin? What is to stop you right now from selling a e-book of “Sex, Bombs and Burgers” on your own terms at a price you consider fair? A contract locking that book exclusively to them or do they ‘actually’ do something you need of them?

  2. petenowak2000

    June 28, 2011 at 1:33 am

    Alas, Penguin acquired the rights to sell the ebook in Canada when I signed my deal with them. Obviously it was a bad business move on my part but it’s not like any first-time author has a choice. No publisher will sign such writers without demanding ebook rights as part of the deal. I’ve tried to convince them to lower the price before but, because that failed and the ebook sells for what it does, I can’t blame anyone for downloading it for free. I may try to reacquire the rights, but if not, it certainly was a learning experience for the next book.

  3. Marc Venot

    June 28, 2011 at 5:07 am

    This month Apple inc. (it’s the frontrunner but others too) has :
    * Given Publishers a Sales Break (
    * release Final Cut Pro X at a discounted price ($300) compared to the previous release and adapted to the new version of the OS (Lion) so creating video is becoming more accessible to the casual user (and for the pro when plug-in are done).

    That means that the 30% is not a complete fixed rule and it’s becoming more accessible to enrich the ebook content with multimedia.

  4. russellmcormond

    June 28, 2011 at 9:35 am

    Normally an author will go the self-publishing route because they feel their publisher is exerting too much control, and they want to have the book do better by getting the book into more peoples hands. The more you offer readers, the more they will offer in return.

    In J.K Rowling’s case I suspect it was the opposite — that allowing someone other than herself to have control was the problem.

    It is my understanding that the whole “making available” right for physical media was pushed in treaties and various domestic law to promote her silly publicity stunt of having the book available for sale at the same time everywhere. Books are copied (what copyright normally regulates), shipped, and then she wanted it to be an infringement for a lawful copy that was shipped to a bookstore to be sold or read before her chosen time.

    It is true that the article discussed DRM-free eBooks, but that doesn’t change the dynamic. More and more authors and publishers are recognizing that DRM puts control in the hands of the technology manufacturers – not the authors. It may be that she has recognized this before some of her less technologically literate fellow authors, and that her rejection of DRM is part of her dislike for others having control over her works.

    It is possible that this understanding of DRM will eventually trickle down to creators and their publishers, but I won’t count on it. It is far more likely that this “go it alone” of authors of the more controlling type will make books even harder to pay for and enjoy, not easier.

    (Note: Fan of big fan of the movies derived from the books, but not a fan of the author or the policies she is associated with).

  5. Sam Davies

    June 29, 2011 at 8:17 am

    My goodness….. All the more reason for you to self publish your next book! Resist the comforts of the cartel, and work towards establishing a genuine relationship with your readership. As you are a tech writer, the majority of your readers fall within a certain niche demographic. Who is kidding who – these are not the type that are seduced by marketing as much as they are seduced by interest. I’d wager that they are more likely to order online then they are to purchase from brick and mortar. Take the risk…

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